A green thought in a green shade

Since I spent much of yesterday in the garden, tending ripening tomatoes, pulling weeds from between thick clusters of rosemary and thyme, repotting a lavender, and generally messing about, I thought today of Andrew Marvell's gorgeous poem “The Garden.” It's one of a suite of garden or pastoral poems Marvell wrote, lusciously evocative and highly idealized. I don't mind a bit of idealism in these garden idylls. I'd rather bring the poem into the garden than the garden into the poem.

What wondrous life is this I lead;
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Here at the fountain's sliding foot,
Or at some fruit-tree's mossy root,
Casting the body's vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide:
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walked without a mate:
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But 'twas beyond a mortal's share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises 'twere in one
To live in Paradise alone.

This inconstant stay

I rejoice immoderately in the coming of Spring. A change that is also a return; what CS Lewis describes as “that union of change and permanence that we call rhythm.”

I also notice my astonishment at the passage of time, at the turn of seasons that seems swifter every year.  Human being is being in time; we know no other. Yet we are also innately at odds with time.  The poets are full of this anomaly. Marvell’s rueful ‘Had we but world enough and time...’ Shakespeare’s sense of time’s inexorable march, its bending sickle, its fell hand, its war with us. Moses, a man who lived one hundred and twenty years, forty of them tending sheep in Midian, another forty wandering, still found life bafflingly brief. In spite of long years of exile and futility, he could write that human life is “like grass which sprouts anew. In the morning it flourishes and sprouts anew; Toward evening it fades and withers away [...] soon it is gone and we fly away.”

If the arc of time is short, the character of time is blessed. Time is part of the created order: there was evening and morning, the first day. At the third hour, the sixth, the ninth. Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy. Eugene Peterson says he grew up thinking end time was the only sacred time. He learned later that all time is sacred, is created. The encompassing rhythms of weeks, lunar months, years “call forth regularities of spring births, summer growth, autumn harvest, winter sleep. Creation time is rhythmic. We are immersed in rhythms.” Hearing the beat and cadence of these rhythms makes us “internalise orderliness and connectedness and resonance.”

So the passage of time, if quick, is also life and breath to us. We know no other. Galileo found it lovely: “It is my opinion that the Earth is very noble and admirable, by reason of so many and so different alterations, mutations, generations &c which are incessantly made therein; and if without being subject to any alteration, it had been all one vast heap of sand, a mass of Jasper...wherein nothing had ever grown, altered, or changed, I should have esteemed it a lump...full of idleness...superfluous, and as if it had never been in nature...a dead creature.”

So time that makes us mutable makes us beautiful. It is time that brings spring at the death of winter, that marries change and permanence. Time that carries us round the sun, more swiftly every year. Time, which takes and kills all we know as life, is life as we know it.